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Barrel Making - toasted to perfection

Copperage François Frères © Edisud, Gilles Lansard

Just as every step of the wine-making process is treated with reverence in Burgundy, so is the barrel production. For it is the barrels used for aging the wine which can make or break the finished product into which so much effort has already gone.

Toast the barrel too little and the flavour transmitted to the wine will remain ‘woody’, more firing produces vanilla and roasted flavours and still further burning brings new, spicy tones. The cooper and the wine grower have to work in harmony and have great confidence in each other to get the toasting right for the right end product.

Using only French oak from Nevers, Chatillon-sur-Seine and further afield in the Vosges, Allier and Limousin regions, the selection of top quality, finely grained wood free of knots or faults is made by the cooperage.

Burgundy, with its accent on wine has several large cooperages. Cadus, owned by Louis Jadot can be found at Corton, 8km north of Beaune; François Frères are at St-Roman near Auxey-Duresses. On a much smaller scale the old tradition is carried on too in Ouroux-sur-Morvan. They are businesses employing artisans where their skills are mixed with modern day technology at the same time.

Forming the barrel

The three important operations are the splitting of the wood, the air drying and the the heat sealing process.

The wood is split according to the grain and seasoned at the cooperage, out in the air and rain, standing on oak pallets, on gravel: other woods or tarmac might transmit flavours. After about 30 months it is ready.

First the wood is placed in a ventilation chamber to bring it to the correct temperature and humidity. The wood is cut to length and shaped into staves. Then the cooper packs the pieces side by side on a rack, the precise width of a barrel circumference. With the help of a couple of hoops, the staves are then ‘raised’ to form a splayed barrel which is placed over a small brazier. Bits of burning oak are fed into the ‘barrel’ which is cooled from time to time by a spray of filtered water. As the gentle heat begins to soften the wood, a cooper circles the barrel, hammering down the metal hoops until the top of the staves close to a perfect barrel shape. A metal rope is hooked around the splayed bottom of the barrel and a machine pulls the bottom in. The barrel is inverted and more hoops are beaten into place over the tightened end. More heat is now applied to ‘set’ the barrel.

Toasted to Perfection

Brulage at the Louis Jadot Cooperage, Cadus

Now the barrel is customised. All the barrels are made to order, and the degree of toasting is all important. If there is too much fire, the wine will end up smoky. So there is slow toasting with different amounts of fire. An experienced cooper can tell by the aroma when the moment has come to stop.

To complete the barrel, the bung-hole is drilled and the top and bottom or ‘heads’ are made by laser. A leakage test is done by pouring boiling water into the cask and shaking violently, and if all is well, the final silver hoops are attached.

It is a timely and skilful process: a cooper at Cadus, makes on average 2.2 barrels a day, and each barrel costs over 600 euros, two thirds of which is the cost of the wood.